Somewhere between going to your sixth holiday party, second school Christmas performance, 12th crowded mall, and 38th traffic jam, you realize you’ve come down with it yet again this year. Even though you vow every year you’re going to somehow escape it, organize your way out of it, downsize your experience of it, or simply consume wine by the case, at some point between Black Friday and Christmas morning, you realize you once again have come down with a nasty case of the Holiday Blues — an exhausting kind of stress that causes you to loathe the season which is supposed to be rooted in joy, love, and generosity.
Holiday stress is impossible to escape. It doesn’t matter if you’re the town Scrooge or a devout atheist, holiday stress and strain grabs everyone by the throat and doesn’t let go till we’re popping the Tylenol on January 1. There are too many people trying to accomplish too much in the same crowded spaces in too little time. And it’s not like work and family duties just evaporate at this time of year. Rather, like everything else, they multiply and magnify until we fantasize about becoming a contestant on Naked and Afraid … because wouldn’t covering up with oak leaves and eating berries for dinner just be so much easier than tackling that insane to-do list?
To make matters worse, health experts offer lots of facile advice around this time of year about how best to combat it: Slow down. Take a hot bath. Remember what’s important. Meditate.
As though anyone has time for any of that!
Here’s another, easier solution: Listen to your favorite music.
There’s an impressive amount of scientific research on how effective music is for changing our brain state and reducing the experience of stress.
It used to be thought that classical music held a monopoly on this, but more recent research suggests any music you find pleasurable will create positive brain changes — improved memory, improved mood, and improved immunity, to name just a few benefits.
Here are five easy ways you can use music to de-stress during the holidays:
Keep Your Favorite Playlist Handy
While all music provides neurological benefits (except for music that’s jarring or harsh), researchers have found that music which gives you pleasure has an even greater impact. So, as a Christmas present to yourself, go ahead and create that playlist with your crazy-favorite tracks — the songs you truly love and feel inspired by. Whether it’s a song you were recently turned onto, or something you’ve been belting along to for years, pull together your “A-Team” playlist of songs that make you feel really good.
Listen to Music While You’re Out and About
Thanks to technology, we’re in a time where — short of implanting music directly into our brains (which we assume is coming soon) — music could not be more accessible, more customizable, and more portable. Every cell phone and pair of earbuds can become your own personal stress-busting therapist.
Take advantage of this. Without sacrificing safety or tuning out your surroundings, listen to music while driving, walking through crowded sidewalks, picking up snacks for the holiday party, or waiting on line at the post office. The same situation that might previously have left you furious or fed up can have the opposite result if you’ve been listening to music you find physically energizing or spiritually uplifting. And feeling good is contagious. If you’re tapping your toes while dealing with that frazzled store clerk, your smile and positive mood might just rub off on her, as well.
Singing with emotion has been shown to release oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone.” Oxytocin is a natural human hormone associated with empathy, trust, and relationship-building. So, when you sing along to a song that makes your heart swell, you might just end up wanting to give a hug, as well as a dollar, to that Santa shaking his cup outside the department store.
Topping up your oxytocin reserves means it’s also more likely you’ll be loving and patient with family members, even as the proverbial holiday kaka hits the fan. There’s nothing worse than raging at your spouse or kids just because you’re trying to bake gingerbread cookies with one hand and wrap gifts with the other. Sing along to Mavis Staples as you’re baking, and you might be much more charitable when you’ve discovered your three-year old has just poured molasses all over the sofa. (Though, in truth, the fact that “You Are Not Alone” is a big part of the problem!)
Use Music in Emotionally Challenging Situations
Some research suggests that music which impacts you emotionally has the ability to help process old emotions. These are emotions which — though stored deep in the subconscious — nonetheless influence our present-day mood and behavior. Do you have one of those dreaded family dinners coming up, which inevitably serve up extra helpings of drama and tension alongside the mashed potatoes? Listen to your favorite “sad song” on the way home. Those tears you shed while listening will likely be linked to your old emotional wounds. The sense of clearing and release you feel will be beneficial, even if you aren’t clearing or releasing the original emotional hurt.
Give the Gift of Music
Most of us get financially stressed during the holidays. We live in a consumer culture that worships expensive high-tech offerings while downplaying simplicity. One of the great things about roots music is that it crosses genres and is universally appealing. That playlist you created to help you stay sane during the holidays? Consider burning a CD of it, spiffing it up with a pretty bow and attaching a heartfelt note for a quick, easy gift for multiple people on your list. Like cookies made from a cherished family recipe or a lovingly hand-knit sweater, receiving a “mix tape” consisting of a loved one’s hand-picked songs is like receiving a part of that person’s heart and psyche. People are moved by it. Rather than appearing cheap, it looks unique and thoughtful.
If you want to make it a little extra special, fill a mason jar with epsom salts from the drugstore and offer it alongside the CD with a note expressing your wish for them: peace, relaxation, and (if they’re lucky) maybe even a good cry.
No one has to know it’s the same ol’ playlist you’ve been listening to all season long as your own personal Xanax!
Heather Juergensen is a health and wellness consultant based in Los Angeles. Her company, The Strong Woman, devises natural, non-pharmaceutical solutions for clients dealing with myriad physical and mental health issues, including depression. Find more of her favorite ways to de-stress on her blog.